CSL has stars in its eyes
Updated: 2012-11-11 08:08
By Tang Zhe(China Daily)
Jiangsu Sainty fans during one of their team's matches in the Chinese Super League. The league has lured more famous overseas players and coaches and thus has seen more fans return to the stadiums. The average attendance increased from 2011's 17,600 per game to 18,800 this season. Provided to China Daily
(From left) Guangzhou Evergrande's Lucas Barrios, head coach Marcello Lippi and Daro Conca celebrate after winning the league title. Most domestic clubs rely on overseas players or coaches to compete for the crown. Provided to China Daily
The nation's top-flight soccer league is going from strength to strength on the back of foreign imports, but is that an altogether good thing for its development? Tang Zhe reports
While the Chinese Super League appeared to prosper in 2012, the same could hardly be said for local development. Almost all the CSL clubs increased their investments before and during this just-completed season; and world-class names like Shanghai Shenhua's Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, and Evergrande's Italian coach Marcello Lippi added to the league's star appeal. The competition also continued to grow and woo more fans to the stadiums. The average attendance increased from 2011's 17,600 per game to 18,800 this season.
The duel between defending champion Guangzhou Evergrande and runner-up Jiangsu Sainty at the Nanjing Olympic Center Stadium in the 28th round attracted 65,769 fans; a record for the league.
In the AFC Champions League, Evergrande reached the quarterfinals in its debut year, a result not achieved by a Chinese team since 2007.
However, somewhat hidden by the recovering popularity of the national league was a shrinking pool of domestic talent.
Chinese clubs are becoming increasingly reliant on foreign players, especially up front. Liaoning Whowin's Yu Hanchao and Evergrande's Gao Lin were among the league's top 10 scorers in 2011, but no Chinese made the top-10 list this season - a far cry from 2006 when Chinese striker Li Jinyu set the league record by scoring 26 goals.
Shandong Luneng forward Wang Yongpo was the most prolific domestic player of 2012, ranking 11th with 10 goals, which included four penalties. Romanian striker Christian Danalache from Jiangsu Sainty led the table with 23 goals.
Domestic coaches are also making way for foreigners, with only five locals being at the helm of first-tier teams by the end of the season. They included Zhu Jiong of Shanghai Shenxin and Henan Jianye's Shen Xiangfu, whose teams have been relegated.
Beijing Guo'an, Shandong Luneng, Dalian Shide and Shanghai Shenhua were among the first batch of China's professional teams; and they were the league's most powerful sides for more than a decade. However, none had what they would describe as a satisfying season this year.
By introducing Anelka and Drogba, Shenhua boss Zhu Jun hit the headlines and rebuilt his reputation among local fans. However, the club was embroiled in a major dispute in mid August. Zhu, the biggest shareholder and the man who persuaded Drogba and Anelka to join Shenhua, was reported to have threatened to leave the club at the end of season if its other five shareholders refused to hand over majority control of the team - as had apparently been agreed in 2007 - to him.
Shortly after that dispute, Shenhua players refused to train on Oct 15 after claiming the club had not paid them the full amount of their salaries over the past month.
Shenhua only managed to finish ninth in the standings and doubts abound about whether its international stars will return next season.
Eight-time top-tier league champion Dalian Shide was purchased by the city's new emerging power, Dalian Aerbin, for 320 million yuan ($51.2 million) due to financial woes. Aerbin will combine the two clubs into one. The Chinese Football Association is yet to determine how to deal with the extra CSL spot left by Shide.
Four-time league champion and 2010 titlist Shandong Luneng finished a lowly 12th in the league. Guo'an, though, recaptured its form in the second half of the season to finish third, although head coach Jaime Pacheco and the club are to part ways.
According to Luo Ning, honorary chairman of Beijing Guo'an, the club is now in touch with more than 20 coaching candidates, including former German national team coach Juergen Klinsmann and Serbian coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic, who led Luneng to two CSL championships (2006 and 2008).
Jiangsu Sainty turned out to be a surprise packet of the 2012 league. Despite a humble investment and moderate lineup, it was on the heels of Evergrande for the bulk of the season. It managed a 13-game undefeated record and, for the first time, qualified for the AFC Champions League by finishing runner-up in the league with three games to play.
Head coach Dragan Okuka was named the league's coach of the year, while its top scorer, Danalache, was honored with the golden boot and the most valuable player of the season awards.
"Our success could be an example for other comparably small clubs; that money is not the most important thing in soccer," said the 58-year-old Serb. "The most important thing is how to make a team come together as a whole.
"Maybe what we have done well in the league is inject some positive spirit and belief to win over players who used to be satisfied with not being relegated," Okuka said.
"I feel Chinese teams are afraid of taking part in high-quality tournaments like the Champions League because they don't believe in themselves, and such mental problems make it difficult for them to get further," he told Chinese paper Titan Sports. "Sainty has to change that mindset when we play in the tournament next year.
"I admit the Japanese and South Korean teams might be a little stronger than us, but that doesn't mean we will be afraid to play against them," the coach said.
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(China Daily 11/11/2012 page8)